Now in a new year, all Fourth Estaters are expected to make forecasts of future events a la H.G. Wells' "Things to Come" of the 1930s. Back in the '50s, a radio program titled "Predictions of Things to Come" competed with newsprint to do just that.
In the grand tradition of crystal-ball gazing, here's my prediction: a tax-revenue desperate Vermont will find a new profit center on the dashboard of your automobile - more precisely, in the odometer.
This isn't a brainstorm on my part, it's already in place or on the way in states such as Oregon and North Carolina.
The official reasoning for the new dashboard levy derives from the pressing fiscal need by Big Brother to penalize the driving public for doing exactly what they had been instructed by government to do: switch to higher-mileage vehicles and drive fewer miles. Both actions, of course, reduce the inflow of conventional fuel-tax dollars to state coffers.
You won't have a mileage cop in your vehicle with you (but look out: in feel-good Middlebury, idling vehicles, even in sub-zero temperatures, can prompt an eager Barney Fife to knock on your side window); instead, you will have a mileage-reading device installed so that your driving habits can be recorded and paid for. However, the mileage-police would descend on you should you attempt to defeat mileage-recording systems.
If you conceive of the present fuel tax as a sort of user fee; if you recognize that funds need to come from somewhere for highway maintenance; if you don't want all roads to become toll roads; and if you agree with the concept of user fees being more "fair" and logical than broad-based taxes - then you should welcome, rather than oppose, a highway trust fund revenue source; a source that is based on measured vehicle miles-usage rather than, say, another grasping hand molesting the income tax treasure-chest.
There are potholes in the road to user fees - as illustrated by Montpelier's previous dips into what was supposed to be a lock-box highway trust fund dedicated solely to specific highway spending targets. But such misbehaviors with revenues are always possible under Vermont's Golden Dome.
Assuming such money grabs can be kept in check (and that user fees substitute for, and don't add onto, general taxes), a policy move towards user fees for essential government services should be welcomed by taxpayers rather than resisted.
I wouldn't go so far as to argue that jail residents should be nominally billed for room and board (although I can conceive of a means-test compromise), but I would suggest that the user-fee approach be extended into another tax heavy area: public education.
If you assume that Vermont public education is under-funded then you might, in your never-ending search for more money, consider a nominal user fee: that parents or guardians actually pay a few percent of the per-pupil costs incurred by the student(s) they send to school.
Back to the future, you might say, the so-called student rate bills of the Civil War-era were based on exactly this principle with the local governments picking up the tab for those few households which couldn't afford even the nominal contribution.
And while we're at it, how about impact fees for new development? Places such as Stuart, Fla., have been using impact fees successfully for decades.
Politically, such a user-fee concept - after all, the impact charge is passed through by the developer to the actual building occupant - should appeal to the anti-development folks.
In most cases, I'd guess, the same people who would condemn user fees in an education context are the same ones who would applaud it in a development concept (the confluence of these suggestions would be fun to watch). If such a radio figure like the late announcer and actor John Nesbitt was around today, this idea could even be discussed on his popular "MGM Passing Parade" show that was broadcast on NBC.
Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.